The invisibility of the plight of African-American women and their struggle against the AIDS epidemic was never so glaringly obvious than in the vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards. And the invisibility of my group’s plight has less to do with African-American women’s agency to combat the epidemic than it has to do with how the government, African American men, the Black Church, and race and gender biases inherent in the problem collude with African American women’s efforts to get help.
With a present administration that couldn’t care less about getting African American women voters — about as little as it cares about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voters — the problems and concerns of these voting populations become either marginal or invisible.
But Gwen Ifill, an African-American female journalist with PBS’ “Washington Week” and moderator of the vice presidential debate, brought the issue of AIDS in the U.S. front and center when she asked the men to comment on its devastating impact on African-American women.
“I want to talk to you about AIDS, and not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?” Ifill asked.
I was elated by the question because it placed a black women’s crisis at the center of an important domestic issue in this country. However, both candidates’ response to Ifill’s query was inexcusable. And as an African-American woman, I say: “Give me a reason why I should vote for either of them?”
I was elated by [Gwen Ifill's] question because it placed a black women’s crisis at the center of an important domestic issue in this country. However, both candidates’ response to Ifill’s query was inexcusable. And as an African-American woman, I say: “Give me a reason why I should vote for either of them?”
Vice President Cheney responded to Ifill’s question by saying, “Here in the United States, we’ve made significant progress. I have not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was — that they’re in epidemic there. . .”
Mr. Cheney, where have you been?
But John Edwards’ response wasn’t any better. Edwards deflected the question by first going back to answering the previous question. Then with the remaining seconds left he flubbed his way through. By avoiding the question, unfortunately, Edwards missed the opportunity to expose the damage the Bush administration has done in its anemic fight against AIDS.
For example, Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, points out how “Cheney was just one of 13 House members to vote against the precursor to the Ryan White CARE Act in 1988 — the AIDS Federal Act. Unlike the Bush administration, Sen. Kerry and Sen. Edwards are focused on solving our HIV/AIDS crisis. Both co-sponsor the Early Treatment for HIV Act and support full funding for science-based HIV prevention programs and the Ryan White CARE Act.”
The Bush administration has done even more to hinder the fight against AIDS. In promoting an ideology of abstinence only, the Bush administration has taken monies from proven disease prevention initiatives. In denouncing the effectiveness of condoms because, as it argues, they are not 100 percent effective, the Bush administration thwarts the efforts of AIDS activists in promoting safe sex. Also the Bush administration’s refusal to fund needle exchange programs is a deliberate effort on their part to ignore the glaring reality that AIDS is also spread by intravenous drug users.
When the color of the [AIDS] epidemic shifted from white to black, the inherent gender bias focused only on the needs of African-American men and rendered white women and all women of color invisible. And when gender became a new lens to track the epidemic, white women were the focus.
When the color of the epidemic shifted from white to black, the inherent gender bias focused only on the needs of African-American men and rendered white women and all women of color invisible. And when gender became a new lens to track the epidemic, white women were the focus. The invisibility of African-American women in this epidemic has much to do with how the absence of a gendered race analysis makes African-American women invisible to the larger society. Akasha Gloria Hull, professor of women’s studies and literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, highlighted the invisibility of African-American women with the title of her seminal text, “All the women are white, all the blacks are men, but some of us are Brave.”
However, where the larger society might be oblivious to the plight of African-American women with AIDS, neither the Black Church nor African-American men are.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health organization, African-American women account for 72 percent of all new HIV cases in women, and they are 23 times more likely to be infected with the virus than white women. What is also unnerving is that 67 percent of African-American women with HIV contracted it from heterosexual sex. And two ways that the virus is contracted heterosexually is through intravenous drug use and African-American men “on the down low” (a.k.a., “On the D.L.”). These are men who have sex with other men but disguise their homosexual sexual activity by having unprotected sex with women. While homophobic attitudes in the larger African-American community contribute to their behavior, African-American men are also not taking responsibility for how their behavior is killing African-American women, and putting the entire community at risk.
But the disparities within the healthcare system also contributes to the disproportionately higher number of HIV cases among African-American women, which directly affects their quality of life, longevity and the spread of HIV. When I asked Dr. Thea L. James, an African-American lesbian emergency room physician at Boston Medical Center, how often she treats and diagnoses African-American women with AIDS she said, “When I was an intern, patients with HIV and AIDS were common and frequent and were admitted repeatedly. Today, HIV/AIDS is a different disease due to the positive effects of anti-retrovirals and their ability to suppress the virus. The effect and access to anti-retrovirals have changed the face of HIV and AIDS, at least for those who are fortunate enough to have access to the anti-retroviral drugs. African-American women are not so fortunate, which of course is a key point. A Congress-driven study by the Institute of Medicine reported that racial and ethnic minorities tend to receive a lower quality of healthcare than non-minorities, even when access-related factors, such as patients’ insurance, status and income are controlled. The report found that African Americans with HIV are less likely than non-minorities to receive anti-retroviral therapy. Racial and ethnic minorities are victims to institutional and social inequalities in every aspect of American life. Why would medicine be any different?”
The Black Church continues to play a part in the death of African Americans with AIDS. While its silence on the issue is appalling and unconscionable, so too is its various forms of heterosexualized rituals and pronouncements that denigrate both LGBT people and women.
Therefore, women with AIDS are as unwelcome in the Black Church as LGBT people. Within black nationalist milieus like the Black Church and the Nation of Islam, African-American women with AIDS are also viewed as race traitors. In this patriarchal “straightjacket,” biological essentialist views are as holy and deified as the Bible itself. And with the belief that women are to multiply and bring forth new life for the perpetuation of the race, women with AIDS lose their status in the community. Often labeled as “loose” for having contracted the virus, she is viewed as not only diseased but also dangerous because her sexual wiles continues to seduce men. A woman with AIDS is a fallen woman, not only for having contracted the disease but also for having disregarded the policing of sexual behavior by the Black Church.
Within black nationalist milieus like the Black Church and the Nation of Islam, African-American women with AIDS are also viewed as race traitors. In this patriarchal “straightjacket,” biological essentialist views are as holy and deified as the Bible itself.
The AIDS epidemic among African-American women is also symptomatic of the needed dialogue among us about our bodies and sexuality, which has been choked for centuries by a “politic of silence.” Working in conjunction with what African-American women created as a “culture of dissemblance” and “the politic of respectability,” the silence African-American women created around their bodies and sexuality that had been exploited during slavery was viewed as a revolutionary act against the white oppressive gaze.
The “culture of dissemblance” was a proactive black feminist politic that aimed to protect the sanctity of the interior aspects of African-American women’s social and sexual lives. Darlene Clark Hines, professor of history at Northwestern University and editor of Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, defines this culture as “the behavior and attitudes of black women that created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressor.” Only with secrecy could African-American women achieve the psychic and sexual space to protect their bodies and sexuality.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of history at Harvard University and author of Righteous Discount: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, points out that the “politics of respectability” emphasized reform of personal behavior and attitudes both as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform of the entire structural system of American race relations. Higginbotham also points out that through the discourse of respectability, the women’s movement in the black Baptist Church emphasized manners and morals while simultaneously asserting traditional forms of protest, such as petitions, boycotts, and verbal appeals to justice.
Another reason why Cheney and Edwards and thus the larger society cannot see the crisis going on with African-American women around AIDS is because the societal stereotypes of us obfuscate our real countenances. The iconography of black women is predicated on four racist cultural images: the Jezebel, the Sapphire, Aunt Jemima, and Mammy. With the image of the strong black women who can endure anything and “make a way out of no way,” her strength is either demonized as being emasculating of black men or impervious to the human condition. The Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are now conflated into what’s called “Big Mamma” in today’s present iconography of racist and sexist images of African-American women. While the Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are prevalent images that derive from slavery, for centuries both of them have not only been threatening, comforting and nurturing to white culture but also to African-American men.
Cheney and Edwards don’t see African-American women anymore than our African American men do. And because our humanity is distorted and made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes, so too is our suffering.